Burning Issues

Meet Your Body: An introduction to how wood smoke hurts your health.

The body needs internal stability in all functions. It operates best with in a narrow range of acidity, blood pressure, blood temperature and hormone concentrations. It has complex negative feedback systems to achieve this stability. Stability is called homeostasis. We will be examining how and where wood smoke exposure can upset this balance, particularly in the 50 percent of the population that is vulnerable.

We will look at studies linking fine particulate to mortality and illness. We will look at tables to help understand what wood smoke chemicals and micro particulate can do to the body. We will look briefly at some of the functions the body must perform to remain alive, and mechanisms of disease, emphasizing research findings.

The body is truly micro managed. Even our cells have smaller divisions: mitochondria are round to rod shaped objects with a double membrane inside the cell. They are the principal sites of energy generation and they contain the enzymes of the respiratory pathway. They also contain RNA and DNA, our genetic material, so that they can replicate and code for use of their proteins. Smoke can damage the mitochondria.

Human Exposure: How do harmful toxic substances get into the body? Toxic exposure includes the harmful chemicals that come into the body on what we eat, in drugs, in what we drink, or are absorbed through the skin by touch. Toxic exposure includes toxins that we breathe in, as we take in oxygen. Humans need constant supplies of oxygen to every part of the body to survive.

Smoke has cumulative effects over very long periods of exposure, as cells are destroyed or altered over time. Initially exposure may seem to have no effect on a healthy person. Investigating the effects of smoke inhalation on human health we encounter a similar combination of types of disease processes in the body as triggered by tobacco smoke, coal smoke, asbestos, silica, and diesel exhaust. We are going to see more than just a respiratory and cardiovascular picture. The immune system, hormone regulation, and the brain become involved as well as digestion. To understand how smoke damages the body we need to understand some of what the body must do to live and breathe.

Two important paragraphs of an American Medical Association statement on its 1995 report about the health effects of air pollution are included here.

" Air pollutants can enter the body through various ways--not just by inhalation. They can be absorbed through the skin or ingested by eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated, possibly through bioaccumulation in the food chain. The pollutants in food and water that humans and animals are most likely to be exposed to include pesticides, PCBs, dioxin, and heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, and mercury, says the report. Such pollutants can cause a variety of adverse health effects including respiratory ailments, damage to the blood system leading to anemia or leukemia, heart disease, including hypertension and cardiac arrhythmias, and damage to the urogenital system resulting in kidney disease, bladder cancer, and reproductive problems. In addition, the skeletal system stores heavy metals such as lead that may accumulate over time. During times of bone loss such as pregnancy, lactation, or osteoporosis, the stored toxins may be released back into the body causing health problems, especially in women, newborn children, and senior citizens.

"Air pollutants can also cause immune suppression or overstimulate the immune response, which can lead to allergies and immune-mediated diseases. Air pollutants have also been linked to psychological disorders and toxic damage to the nervous system and the brain, especially in developing fetuses or young children. In addition, the report points out that air pollutants are thought to have detrimental effects on the reproductive and endocrine systems, but according to the conference summary, these effects require more research to be fully understood. The report points out that certain populations, including children, the elderly, and minorities, are at a higher risk of being affected by air pollutants (AMA, 1995)."


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